Divided South Portland City Council fails to OK controversial zoning change

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Thanks to an unexpected vote Monday by City Councilor Michael Pock, and much to the delight of supporters of a Westbrook Street synagogue and some Thornton Heights residents, zoning changes at the corner of Main and Westbrook streets are on hold.

The former St. John the Evangelist Church at Main Street and Thirlmere Avenue, meanwhile, was rezoned to prohibit its possible demolition for a 24-hour drive-through Dunkin’ Donuts, a victory for the city and neighbors of the church.

But zoning changes to the city-owned lot next to the synagogue, which would have facilitated an alternative location for Dunkin’ Donuts, failed to earn sufficient council support, leaving city officials unsure about what to do next.

Efforts to tweak zoning at the corner of Westbrook and Main streets will now likely last into mid-summer.

The City Council considered the zoning changes to Thornton Heights and Main Street as part of ongoing long-term adjustments to the city’s Comprehensive Plan. The changes introduce design standards, address high police activity at Main Street-area motels, and simplify traffic patterns.

The changes also coincide with the community’s messy Dunkin’ Donuts dispute.

Councilors on Monday unanimously authorized zoning changes that will prohibit Cafua Management, a Massachusetts-based Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee that bought St. John’s last December, from demolishing the church.

Cafua had hoped to move an existing Dunkin’ Donuts to the church from its aging location nearby, at 633 Main St., which has been leased from Ginn Real Estate since 1970.

Neighbors of the church lobbied city officials to offer Cafua an alternate location, which led to a proposal to lease or sell the company city-owned green space at the corner of Westbrook and Main streets.

The corner lot is divided between a limited business zone and a residential zone. The proposed Thornton Heights zoning would include the entire 2.3-acre, property making the space fair game for 24-hour businesses and drive-throughs. The changes would also have allowed buildings up to six stories tall.

After learning of the city’s intention, members of Congregation Bet Ha’am, which abuts the green space, expressed opposition and reminded councilors of a decade-long intention to turn the space into a park.

Despite the synagogue’s opposition, the zones passed first readings on May 5. The votes – with the minimum requirement of five councilors, including Pock, in support – seemed to set the stage for the city and Cafua to enter lease or sale negotiations for the corner lot.

But at Monday’s second reading, with nearly 100 people present and most speakers opposing the Thornton Heights zoning change, the proposal was sent back to the drawing board.

Pock’s change of heart, and the continued opposition from Councilors Tom Blake and Patti Smith, produced a 4-3 vote – one vote short of the super majority required to enact a zoning change.

Pock even proposed separating the corner parcel from the new Thornton Heights zone altogether. He said it was not until he spoke before Monday’s meeting with community stakeholders, including Ellen Fontaine of Ginn Real Estate, that he saw the need for a “time out.”

“I didn’t realize at the first reading how many people were involved,” Pock said Tuesday, noting Fontaine’s frustration that her real estate business’ interest had not been considered with the interests of the city, neighbors, Cafua and the synagogue.

“If there’s this much confusion now,” he said, “then maybe we ought to sit back and take another look at it.”

The four councilors in favor of the changes – Melissa Linscott, Maxine Beecher, Linda Cohen and Mayor Jerry Jalbert – had hoped a promise to add deeded restrictions to the corner lot would satisfy the synagogue and its Thornton Heights neighbors.

Lisa Munderback, president of Congregation Bet Ha’am, said she was pleased neighbors of the church got what they wanted, and hopes all parties involved will be able to meet and formulate a new zoning approach for the disputed property.

“The neighbors around St. John’s are hopefully relieved, and can feel like they can support moving forward on the green space,” she said Tuesday.

Before Monday’s meeting, City Manager Jim Gailey met for the first time with two representatives from the synagogue to begin talks.

Gailey said Tuesday he was disappointed with how “bogged down” the debate over zoning changes became. He also said Cafua has never submitted formal site plans for either St. John’s or the corner lot, but the company still has every right to tear down the church and build something not open 24 hours or without a drive-through.

Mayor Jerry Jalbert was also disappointed. He has long advocated for improvements the Thornton Heights zoning changes would require of motels along Main Street that generate frequent police calls.

A representative from Cafua could not be reached for comment.

Though a date has not yet been determined, the City Council is expected to hold a workshop to discuss changes to the Thornton Heights zone and the Main-Westbrook lot. If councilors decide on a direction for the zone, they will send it to the Planning Board for consideration, and eventually will hold another three public sessions before taking final action.

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.

Sidebar Elements

Lisa Munderback, president of Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland, addresses the City Council on Monday, May 19, in support of Main Street zoning changes later approved by councilors. Changes in Thornton Heights zoning, which the synagogue opposed, failed to get council support.